The Slow Life and Fast Death of DJ Screw
At the deejay’s funeral in Smithville, they sang gospel songs. Most of the singing came from his family and the older folks, dressed in their Sunday best and sitting in the center of the packed church, one of those small, tidy, weathered white buildings you see in the country. Jammed along the walls and in the corners was a much larger crowd of younger people wearing leather jackets, gold chains, new basketball shoes, and extra-large T-shirts. Some had tattoos on their legs, forearms, and necks. They didn’t sing along much with the hymns. Most of them, I thought as I watched them shyly look for places to squeeze into, had never been to Smithville before; they probably didn’t spend much time in church either. Next to the deejay’s gunmetal-gray coffin at Mount Pilgrim church was a large sign that looked remarkably like a giant $1 million bill, with a picture of the deceased in the center.
A dozen people got up and spoke. Members of his family, who called him Robert Earl, talked about his childhood in Smithville. Some of them talked about the name by which several million people knew him as an adult. “I was one of the first people he told he was going to be named DJ Screw,” said his first cousin Donald Davis. “I said, ‘DJ Screw, what kind of a name is that?’ But he made it, and I was so proud of him.” The deejay’s rap- music buddies from Houston, where he died, spoke too. “He gave me a skill when I didn’t have one,” said DJ Chill. Another, named Mike D, said, “I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it weren’t for DJ Screw. He put a lot of life, a lot of spark into a lot of people’s lives.”
You may never have heard of him, but Robert Earl Davis, Jr.—a.k.a. DJ Screw—was one of the most influential musical figures to come out of Texas in the past decade. He wasn’t a musician or even a rapper; he was a guy behind the turntables mixing other people’s music and raps together. He built his career on a strange, brilliant idea: slow down the music, like taking a 45 record and playing it at 33 rpm. Then he put it on tape and sold it. His tapes became an underground sensation, so popular that people would drive hundreds of miles to his Houston home to buy them. No one knows how many tapes he recorded in his short life—probably more than a thousand—or how many copies are out there. Probably millions. They were dubbed endlessly and passed around neighborhoods and schools like keys to a secret underworld. And the rappers on the tapes, whom Screw had nurtured in his little studio, eventually became famous in their own right. He was a mysterious outlaw hero: artist, entrepreneur, and benevolent godfather in the most vital music scene in Texas.
In truth, this isn’t just Screw’s story. It’s also that of the gritty urban subculture around him, one in which young black men struggle daily with the pathologies of drugs and violence. But here on the south side of Houston, you’ll also find astonishing creativity, powerful dreams, and an unrelenting capitalistic spirit that fits right in with the city’s long wildcatting tradition. Screw, more than anyone, set the tone you’ll hear these days in H-town.
Still and all, he’s dead. Screw’s story, like that of so many brilliant modern music pioneers, from Jimi Hendrix to Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur, ended badly and early. While Screw was slowing down the music, he was slowing himself down with various substances, especially codeine. It finally killed him, on November 16, 2000, at the age of 29. The New York Times noted his significance in a lengthy obituary, but here in Smithville they didn’t need to be told. “This guy was a giant,” said Screw’s cousin Bobby Jerman at Mount Pilgrim church. “All over Houston you hear folks bangin’ that music—bangin’ that Screw. Even when I come to Smithville, I hear it—boom pa, boom pa, boom pa, boom. That was Screw—bangin’ that Screw.” As I left the church, walking past the clutter of cars and mourners, I passed some kids who didn’t get in, bangin’ that Screw through the open doors of a Delta 88. It was loud and slow and sounded like the deck was eating the tape. A couple of cars down, another young man opened his car door and started blasting a Screw tape too. It seemed, on this bright Saturday morning, entirely at odds with the regular-speed world of the grieving. They were outsiders, defiantly doing it on their own, just like Screw.
The fact that i’m a 43-year-old white guy doesn’t keep me from liking rap. Just the opposite. Like all my favorite modern pop music, rap is all about rhyme, rhythm, and riff—the playfulness of words, the violence of sounds. Rap is impish like Snoop Dogg, harsh like Ice Cube, smart like De La Soul, stoopid like Eminem, yearning like Tupac, ironic like the Beastie Boys. Rap is the aural equivalent of a series of perfect fast breaks—street poetry in motion, the rhythm of aggression, the inevitable pounding of beat and image, dance and sex.This most certainly is not what DJ Screw’s music is all about. Screw became famous for derailing these flights of beat fancy. Listening to Screw music is like being in a fever dream. At first it sounds like something is wrong—like the tape will be spitting out of the deck at any second or maybe the batteries are so low the machine is about to die. Everything seems to be dying—voice, beat, scratches, melodies. It’s like a retreat into a whole new world.
When I first heard a Screw tape, I just didn’t get it. These days, as rap music is shooting to new heights of sophistication, Screw sounded like an annoying gimmick. I found it hard to make it through a song, much less a whole tape. I wasn’t alone. Houston rapper Mike D told me about driving around with some friends who were not from Houston and playing them Screw tapes. His friends hated it, even though they were fans of rap music. “They said, ‘We can’t listen to that.’” Mike D told them that they had to get high to get the full effect of the experience. They demurred. “They said, ‘You people here drink cough syrup, you smoke weed, and you listen to slow music. You are crazy.’”
Mike D laughed hard at the memory, as did the handful of other rappers sitting around the room at a music distributor in Houston called Southwest Wholesale Records and Tapes. We had gathered in December, a few weeks after Screw’s death, to talk about his life and the Houston rap music industry he had helped define. Here, besides Mike D, were rappers known as Hawk, Lil-O, Clay-Doe, and 3-2. They are all part of the Screwed Up Click (SUC), a kind of Wild Bunch of the Houston rap scene, some two dozen rappers who are at the top of the local game (others include Big Pokey, Lil’ Keke, Big Moe, and Lil’ Flip; there is no glory in being medium), all of whom owe their success to Screw. On that day, Hawk was wearing a shirt that read “He Made Me Who I Am Today: DJ Screw.”
Southwest Wholesale is one of the biggest one-stop distributors of rap music in the country. It’s also something of a clubhouse for Houston rappers. They release their new albums here, and the giant warehouse is always abuzz with activity, like the local hip-hop scene itself. What makes H-town rap singular is not how many superstars it has—with the exception of Scarface and South Park Mexican, few Houston rappers are known outside of the South—but how homegrown it is. More than three hundred rap albums were released here last year, including several featuring Hawk, Lil-O, Clay-Doe, Mike D, and 3-2, and the musicians enjoy huge local support. There are studios, mastering plants, design companies, CD and tape manufacturers, viable labels, fanzines, distributors, and promo companies. There’s a radio station—97.9 FM, the Boxx—that plays a lot of local rap. And there’s a club circuit with supportive fans that extends from Houston through the South, from Austin to Atlanta. Indeed, Houston is a focal point of the Down South, or Southern rap scene, and local rappers are huge in cities like Little Rock and New Orleans.
The biggest proof of Houston’s success is in album sales. In Houston a modest success for a local rap artist is selling 19,000 albums, which can put $150,000 in a young man’s pocket. A big success, like last year’s CD by Big Moe, City of Syrup, is selling 100,000. Overall, more than a million albums were sold by Houston rap artists in 2000, according to Greg Ellis, a project manager at Southwest Wholesale, and most of those were by members of the SUC, guys who got their start rapping at Screw’s house.
Ellis compares the Houston scene to the punk rock revolution of the late seventies, when everybody, it seemed, was starting bands. “The cultural difference is that in Houston, it’s not bad to make money,” he says. “The goal is not to lose your middle-classness but to achieve it.” Although there is plenty of rapping about street violence, guns, and the like, most of the songs concern the vagaries of leisure: ballin’ (partying), being a player (one who excels at partying), making money, and hanging out with your buddies in H-town. They rap in detail about the outrageously colorful, candy-coated slabs (cars) with screens (TVs) mounted on the visors, twenty-inch blades (wheels), and wood (wood-grained steering wheels). They sing about swangin’ and bangin’ (slowly and artfully swerving while cruising and listening to music) and taking drugs, which include marijuana (sometimes dipped in formaldehyde and PCP and called “wet” or “fry”) and, especially, codeine cough syrup, which is usually mixed with soda pop or lemonade and poured over ice into a large Styrofoam cup. It’s also called lean, because when you drink enough of it you begin to, well, lean. There’s a lot of leaning going on in Houston these days. The cover of City of Syrup shows Big Moe pouring a purple drink from a Styrofoam cup over the Houston skyline. “Po’ it up,” Big Moe sings, “let your mind be free.”
And they rap about Screw. In rapper ESG’s huge hit, “Swangin’ and Bangin’,” he sings, “And now you know what my real G’s do: sip syrup, swang and bang, jam nothing but that Screw, fool.” In Houston they admire Screw because of his mind-boggling success and influence. Nothing has had more effect on what the kids say, wear, drive, and ingest than those Screw tapes. They love him for doing something so obvious, slowing music down, and turning it into an art form. And for taking them along for the ride.
A couple of weeks after Screw’s funeral, I returned to Smithville, drove past the railroad tracks and the cemetery, down Hel Kat Lane and then Cemetery Road, and into the rutted passways of the Countryside Mobile Home Park, looking for Ida M. Deary Davis, a.k.a. Mama Screw. This is not, I thought, the Smithville of Hope Floats. The route I took was the same one Screw used to take, though he used to announce his arrival, in his bright blue Impala Super Sport with fifteen-inch blades, five screens, and a monster stereo system, in a different fashion. “When he’d get to the corner down there,” Davis told me, “I’d hear that car stereo. He’d turn it up and I’d say, ‘Here comes Screw.’” She smiled at the memory, sitting in the living room of the trailer she shares with her longtime companion, Jack Thompson. On the walls, scattered among photos of her grandchildren, are posters from her son’s handful of CDs— several featuring a skull with a screw through its head.Robert Earl Davis, Jr., was born July 20, 1971, in Bastrop, not far from Smithville. His father, Robert Senior, was a long-haul truck driver based in Houston. His mother (who had a young daughter from a previous marriage), came to the area to be with her mother when her son was born. She returned to Houston, but the marriage was foundering; soon it would be over, and she and her kids moved to Los Angeles for a couple of years, then back to Houston, and returned to Smithville in 1980.
When Robert Earl was young, he wanted to be a truck driver like his father. That changed the more he heard his mother’s music collection. The boy’s life was changed forever by two things: seeing Breakin’, the 1984 hit movie about rap and break dancing, and discovering his mother’s turntable. He would take her B.B. King and Johnnie Taylor records and “scratch” them on the turntable the way deejays did, slowing the spinning disc and then allowing it to speed back up, playing with sound. Robert Earl began buying records of his own and playing deejay with his distant cousin Trey Adkins, who would rap. “Screw had a jam box,” Adkins told me, “and he hooked up two turntables to it and made a fader out of the radio tuner so he could deejay.” Adkins said if Robert Earl didn’t like a record, he would deface it with a screw. One day Adkins asked him, “Who do you think you are, DJ Screw?” Robert Earl liked the sound of that and in turn gave his cousin a new name: Shorty Mac.
The boys rode bikes and played video games. Screw was obsessed with a game called Galaga and could play it so well that he could make the score counter go all the way back to zero. He was a decent student but never excelled at school. “All he had was music in his head,” said Davis. In addition to a love for music, Screw picked up something else from her. To support her income (she The Slow Lifehad three jobs as a cleaning lady), she became something of an independent businesswoman. “I’d make tapes from my records,” she remembered. “Not many, but people would come by and buy them. He would stand there and watch me.”One day Robert Earl Davis, Sr., came and got his son and took him to Houston. That, as it turned out, was probably for the best. There were no jobs for black teenagers in Smithville, and Screw needed an urban environment to perfect his urban art form. He went right to work on it. “When I’d leave home,” his father told me, “I wouldn’t worry about him being on the street. I knew he’d be up in his room playing his music.” Robert Senior was driving for a chemical company and went all over Texas and Louisiana, and during that time father and son lived in a hard-edged black working-class neighborhood near Hobby Airport. Screw dropped out of Sterling High School when he was a sophomore. All the low-key teen cared about was music, he told his skeptical father, and he was going to make it big one day.
At seventeen Screw got his first job as a deejay, at Almeda Skating Rink on the south side. Soon he would be working at clubs like Boomerang, where he refined his turntablism—juggling the beats of two different records, scratching, repeating phrases, improvising, watching the dancers’ reactions to certain songs, riffs, and rappers. Screw liked West Coast gangsta rappers like Compton’s Most Wanted and Ice Cube. He was always working the turntables at home, studying the techniques of New York deejays and making mix tapes—compilations on which he would string together rap songs, scratches, and various beats—for friends from albums in his huge record collection. One day in 1989, he was mixing in his apartment with some friends. They were drinking and smoking marijuana and, according to Charles Washington, who would become Screw’s first manager, Screw accidentally hit the turntable’s pitch button, slowing everything down. Screw liked the way it sounded, though he was incredulous when one of his friends offered him $10 to record a slowed-down mix tape. “Screw thought the guy was crazy,” said Washington. But he did it, and the next day Screw’s friend came back with a couple of friends, who also wanted slowed-down tapes.
For the teenager, it was the beginning of a whole new career. Sometimes on his tapes Screw would get on the mike and call out the names of Houston neighborhoods over the music; then he’d slow the whole thing down and sell the tape or just give it away. Eventually Screw started letting friends and friends of friends rap, or “flow,” over the beats. They would bring a list of songs with beats they wanted to rap to; Screw would add his own records. “He’d see what you wanted to flow off of,” Shorty Mac told me, “and then find a beat. Whatever mood you were feeling, he’d jump on that with his scratches and beats.” Screw had two turntables and would use his right hand to scratch and his left to run the volume crossfader between the two, fast, like a joystick, though he could scratch with both hands at the same time, and even his knees, Houston rapper Al-D told me.
But Screw also had the ear. He knew what beats to use and which would sound good when slowed down later, when to scratch and when to flow. Screw was always in control of the session, directing and coaxing his rappers like a conductor. “He was a true artist,” said Russell Washington of BigTyme Recordz (no relation to Charles Washington). “He cared about the minutest of details. The scratches had to be just right. He told me that every song on that tape told a story.” Once he had his bass-heavy mixes finished, he would slow the tape down and record it onto a master cassette. He would then dupe copies onto one-hundred-minute Maxell chrome tapes—called grays—which he would buy in bulk from Sams Club. Every tape had a name, like South Side Still Holding or Syrup and Soda. At first Screw would write them by hand on the label, along with his pager number. There was no cover art, no track listings. As he started selling more and more tapes, he began getting the labels printed. And the pager stopped answering.
Everybody wanted Screw tapes. One reason was that you could understand the words, and the rappers Screw chose were all good with words. Another was that Screw picked great songs, usually West Coast gangsta raps that he liked and not whatever was a hit. Plus, he was a homeboy, from their very own south side. Maybe best of all, Screw had found a way to slow down time—he had found another world. So many people were coming to his apartment to buy tapes that the building manager thought he was a drug dealer. The police kicked in his door a couple of times looking for drugs. He moved to a home near Gulfgate Mall and fans followed, knocking on his door at all hours.
Something had to be done, so Screw set a time to sell: from eight to ten in the evening. Cars would start lining up down the block, bringing hundreds of fans, some from as far away as Dallas, who would crowd into the front yard. At around eight, Screw, who stood five feet seven inches tall, would open the security gate to his driveway, and the fans would line up at his back door. Accompanied by a .45 pistol and a dog (and later by his girlfriend Nikki and friends in the SUC), Screw would stand there and sell grays and chat with fans, some of whom were in such awe they couldn’t speak. Then they would drive off, pop the new tape into their decks, and listen to what the SUC was rapping about: their clothes, the latest slang, the new toys they had found to put in their cars. But it wasn’t all just about the material world. “Screw would speak to you through the turntable,” longtime fan Tosin, who used to sell Screw CDs from his Web site, told me. “Say one of his friends died. He’d play certain songs with an RIP feel, keep doing it over and over, chopping words to make a point. It’s like he knew what you were going through by the way he was playing.” Patrick Lewis, head of Jam Down Entertainment, told me he thinks Screw’s music had a lot to do with the decrease in Houston gang violence in the mid-nineties. “He was all about slowing down, chilling out, smoking a little weed. No more hating. Screw became a part of life.”
For a rapper, or anyone with visions of rapping, performing on a Screw tape was like getting asked into the Game. “That was everybody’s dream—to be on a Screw tape,” said Lil-O. Girls were more likely to notice you, for one thing. Maybe more important, your songs were getting heard on the street, eventually leading, as it almost always did, to a record deal. Screw and his tapes became a kind of underground radio station. “When Screw had it,” fan Mike “Doc” Green told me, “he was going to break it in the South—Memphis, New Orleans, Lafayette, Oklahoma.” C-Note of the Botany Boys, who had never released anything before, remembered people on the streets coming up to him and quoting his raps from a Screw tape. Besides being a launching pad to fame, Screw’s home studio was a place to hang out. And it was a lab for aspiring artists. “We were all growing, feeling ourselves out,” said Hawk. C-Note told me, “Without Screw, I’d probably be on the streets or in jail or dead.” Instead, he became a local hero. “We was trendsetters.”Screw, the underground hero, actually came to the surface in 1995 to do his first legit release, All Screwed Up, on BigTyme, but he was clearly more comfortable down below. The problem was, he couldn’t always control things down there. Screw lived by the bootleg (his mix tapes were, legally, unauthorized uses of other artists’ material), but he also suffered from them. Anyone in Houston could make copies of his tapes, slap on a label, and sell them on the street at a huge profit. And they did. Sometimes bootleggers used cheap tapes and put Maxell labels on them, often getting the titles wrong. Others would make their own mix tapes, slow them down, put Screw’s name on them, and sell them at flea markets. As home CD-making technology became affordable, some began making digital versions of Screw tapes.
Screw had achieved true fame, some of it spread by the bootleggers: His name had become a verb and an adjective. To “screw” a tape meant to slow it down, and a “screwed” tape was one that had been slowed. His business-savvy friends tried to get him to protect his name and consolidate his operation—set up a distribution system, get on the Internet, join the modern world. Finally, in January 1998 Screw stopped selling from his house and opened his own store, Screwed Up Records and Tapes, on Cullen. It wasn’t your typical music store. There were no CDs, records, or tapes in the main room, no listening stations or magazines. Just Screw tapes (which by now were clear-plastic cassettes, or “clears”) sold from behind bulletproof glass.
But the store was a minor fix. Nothing could deter the pirates, who were selling mass quantities on the Internet and directly to the stores, some making hundreds of thousands of dollars. Screw would complain, “If you want the real, all you gotta do is call the shop.” But the deejay, who was expert at scratching and mixing records and motivating teenagers, knew little of business and was never angry enough to do anything about it. He still expected people to drive for hours and line up for him. Some record stores became pirates themselves, duping and selling their own Screw CDs and cassettes. James Cooper of Musicmania in Austin, one of the biggest rap stores in Texas, tired of asking Screw for product and began buying from bootleggers. “People would say to me, ‘You’re screwing Screw.’ Well, I’d told him I’d buy from him. He wasn’t interested in being a businessman. He could never get it together. He could have made a fortune.”
True, but Screw was stubborn and, for all his complaining, happy with his life. He certainly made plenty of money—no one knows how much, but it was surely more than a million (Tosin estimates that Screw could take in $3,000 on a good night of tape sales). Screw was a traditionalist: a diligent analog guy in a digital world, a deejay who worked with vinyl when others had graduated to computers, a believer in cassettes when others had left them behind. He took his time with projects, working long and hard, sometimes two or three days straight. Russell Washington told me Screw took almost a year to make 3 ‘N the Morning, Part Two, his second legit release. As it was in his music, time was irrelevant in Screw’s life. “With Screw,” rap producer TJ Watford said, “your days turned into nights and your nights turned into days.” Screw dressed for work in comfortable Dickies pants and Fubu (“For Us By Us”) shirts, and he would wear his shoes until his feet came out of the sides.
He didn’t care about his shoes. He cared about the music. And keeping the rappers, his friends, happy. “He’d give you the shirt off his back,” Hawk said. “As our careers were blossoming, he never wanted any credit.” He was generous in other ways too. “He had guys calling him from prison,” remembered his mother. “He would send them money. I’d say something to him and he’d say, ‘Mom, they just want to talk.’ He never said no to nobody.” Wannabe rappers would approach him on the street and start rapping at him. Screw would listen, no matter how awful they were, and sometimes give them his phone number. But like any artist, he also had his eccentricities. Screw didn’t like banks, and he had to be persuaded to open an account. He was the kind of guy, said his former manager, Charles Washington, who would have buried a bunch of money somewhere. Screw paid for everything in cash, trafficking in $100 bills.
In spite of his unique business practices, in 1998 Screw was at the top of the Houston heap. That year he released about one hundred tapes, as well as All Work No Play on Jam Down Entertainment. Screw worked steadily on other projects—deejaying at shows with SUC members and doing an album, Screwed for Life, with rappers Hawk, Fat Pat, and Kay-K under the name DEA. “People been listening to my shit so long they’re all screwed up,” Screw boasted in an interview. “When they listen to the radio at regular speed, it sounds like the Chipmunks to them.”Screw himself was getting pretty screwed up too. BigTyme’s Washington last saw his friend in 1999. “He didn’t look the same as he had a year or two earlier,” he told me. Codeine was taking its toll. “Screw was really a small person, but the drug made him bigger.” More accurately, it was his lifestyle: the long hours sitting in the studio, the fried chicken Screw loved (Popeye’s, Church’s, and his favorite, Hartz Chicken in Missouri City), and the lethargic, slowed-down world of codeine cough syrup that had caused his body to balloon to more than two hundred pounds.
It’s hard to say how the drug abuse influenced Screw’s work, but in 1999 he put out only a dozen tapes, and they weren’t as adventurous as they used to be, in Tosin’s opinion. There was less freestyling, Screw didn’t play with the turntables much, and he was using the same songs on many of the tapes. Washington thinks maybe Screw was losing interest in the tapes or maybe just in being an underground hero. “I heard he was going to stop making them completely,” he told me. In 2000 Screw released only eight tapes. Other deejays, like Michael 5000 Watts and others at the north side label Swisha House, were picking up the slack, feeding the growing market for slowed-down rap. Screw kept himself busy with other projects. Last May he opened a second record store, in Beaumont. His goal, he said, was to have one in every city in the country. In October Screw moved his studio to a large warehouse. He planned to expand it, open a front office for his label (including a room for taking Internet orders), and set up a room where his rappers could write. Finally, it seemed, Screw was taking care of business.
But drugs, it seemed, were taking care of Screw. Only two months earlier, rap producer TJ Watford and University of Texas film student Ariel Santschi had shot an interview with Screw for a documentary they were making on his life called Soldiers United for Cash. Watford was shocked when he saw the deejay, who had been up for three days recording and looked awful. “Screw didn’t seem to have any direction,” Watford said. “He was talking in circles. I thought I saw a dead man walking.” In video from the interview, Screw is smoking cigarettes that appear damp, as though they have been dipped in something.
On October 28 the filmmakers returned for another interview and were shocked again, this time pleasantly. Watford no longer feared that Screw was about to overdose. “He seemed so much more alive,” he said. Indeed, when I saw the footage, Screw didn’t seem like a man on the brink of death. He looked good, younger than his 29 years. He was overweight, about 215 pounds, with a round face, short hair, a mustache, and a flat crop of hair on his chin. He had a big ring on his right pinkie (for being voted best deejay in the South in a 1999 contest) and a big round medallion around his neck with “Screwed Up Click” on the curves and “DJ” in the center. He looked straight into the camera and spoke softly, confidently. “Wassup, TV world?” he began in his comfortable drawl. “Most of y’all don’t know me. I been in your tape deck for years, know what I’m saying? My name is DJ Screw, know what I’m saying?”
Two and a half weeks later he was dead on the floor of a toilet stall at his studio, an ice cream wrapper clutched in his hand. The news threw young people all over Houston into despair. “I had to leave work,” the rapper Duke told me. “I couldn’t take it. He was like a brother to me.” At the wake and the memorial service in Houston and then the funeral in Smithville, speakers praised Screw’s generosity and work ethic. They spoke of his heart troubles, and they criticized the media for mentioning drugs as the probable cause of death. “The newspapers in the city of Houston were not fair to a great young man,” said his cousin Bobby Jerman at the funeral. “Screw did die of a stressful heart attack.” I wanted to believe it, as did everyone else. That’s what funerals are all about.
The autopsy report, released in January, confirmed what Screw’s close friends already suspected: He died of a “codeine overdose with mixed drug intoxication.” He had “toxic levels” of codeine—an opiate, like heroin—in his blood, as well as Valium and PCP. Like many users, Screw would blend drugs to enhance the high. There was no mention of heart disease, though he did have an enlarged heart. Yes, Screw did drugs (according to one old friend, he had sipped syrup every day for the past decade); he was also, in his cousin’s words, a great young man. If the history of popular music shows us anything, it’s that the two are not irreconcilable.
Of course, music and drugs have always gone together, from jazz and heroin to psychedelic rock and LSD to raves and Ecstasy. I know that a beer makes a song by .38 Special go by easier. Music is a dream, especially under the influence of certain drugs. And it was clear to me that I needed help understanding this Screw music. I needed syrup.So, like Joe Friday going underground to understand the hippies and their weird music, I got the hookup (never mind how). I measured two ounces of the mediciney purple codeine cough syrup into a baby bottle, as I had been shown by a devotee of the craft, and then poured that into a bottle of Big Red, slowly down the sides so the carbonated soda pop wouldn’t fizz up. I capped and shook it for thirty seconds, slowly unscrewed the top, and sucked off as much of the escaping carbonation as I could. It was, I was assured, part of the ritual. Then I poured the foamy red potion over ice into a Styrofoam cup. I sipped. It tasted sweet, with a kind of metallic edge. I sipped some more. Then I pulled out June 27th, the unofficial anthem of the south side, and popped it into my tape deck.
It began the way all Screw tapes did: his slurring introduction, the dragging beat, the familiar keyboard melody buzzing like a dying gnat. Then, as I sipped my syrup, something happened. Like a shift in the afternoon light, the bass got deeper and the keyboards began ringing like bells. I wasn’t thinking about the music; I was feeling it. Everything made sense. I wasn’t impatient at all, and the tape was over before I knew it. Next (by this point my cocktail was long gone) I listened to 3 ‘N the Morning, Part Two. Nothing seemed slow; everything was, for the lack of a better word, mellow. Then, since I have a tape player with pitch control, I screwed some other tapes. Van Morrison sounded great and Lucinda Williams awful. Willie Nelson’s “Night Life” was transcendent, an entirely new song. Then, all of a sudden, I got very sleepy.
When I had asked the rappers Mike D, Hawk, Lil-O, 3-2, and Clay-Doe how important syrup and weed are to screw music, there had been a pause. “You want the truth?” asked Mike D. “Yes,” I replied, knowing what was coming. “It’s everything,” he answered, and the room erupted in laughter. “With syrup it sounds so right,” said one of the others. “You right on time,” said Mike D, to more laughter.
Not everybody agreed, though, about the importance of being screwed up. “I like Screw music, and I don’t smoke or drink,” Russell Washington told me. “I don’t like everything that’s screwed. But some songs you hear screwed and it just feels better. Especially if it’s something you like.” Web site owner and fan Tosin said, “Screw music isn’t about doing drugs, but a lot of people smoke or sip syrup and that adds to it. Me, I clean up the house listening to Screw.” Screw was of two minds on the subject. In the liner notes of 3 ‘N the Morning, he wrote instructions for listening: “Get with your click and go to that other level by sippin’ syrup, gin, etc., smoke chronic indo, cess, bud, or whatever gets you to that other level.” But in that late October interview he said, “People think just to listen to my tapes you gotta be high or dranked out … That ain’t true. There’s kids getting my tapes, moms and dads getting my tapes, don’t smoke or drink or nothing.”
Screw did, and Washington, his former manager and a recovering crack addict, admitted what Screw’s family couldn’t: “His lifestyle killed him. Syrup, pills. He probably needed help but didn’t know where to turn.” The truth is, Screw was surrounded by others living the same life he was, one that he himself had put to music. What might have seemed troubling to normal folks—from his obesity to the tape buyers, high on codeine, crashing into the fence around his house—would not have seemed out of the ordinary or dangerous to the king of the underground. He had created this scene. What could possibly hurt him?
Over at Screwed Up Records and Tapes, the slow life goes on. In January I walked in and stood in front of the dry-eraser board that showed the titles of about 125 Screw tapes. His music throbbed off the walls. I got in line and ordered South Side Still Holding from the man behind the bulletproof glass, who turned out to be Shorty Mac, who has been running the store since Screw’s death. He told me the label is going to keep releasing old tapes as well as eight to ten new ones Screw had made before he died—mostly mixes with only a little rapping. The store has recently started putting tapes on CD, in plain plastic cases with no track listings. They’re also finally selling them on the Internet (screweduprecords.com).Screw’s family is also trying to get his affairs in order, but they’re running into the kinds of problems that often accompany a dead rich man, from the woman claiming to have had Screw’s baby to squabbling about his store, equipment, and money. Screw was never much of a businessman, and now his two long-divorced parents, neither of whom have had much experience in the business or music worlds, have to deal with the chaos he left behind. Some wonder what became of all the cash Screw kept around. His father told me there is a safe-deposit box, but because of a court order, no one has seen what’s inside. His mother just wants to get his jewelry back from one of Screw’s cousins. Whatever happens, it’s clear that some kind of business plan needs to be made in Screw’s world. There are at least 135 master tapes, as well as twenty shoe boxes full of other tapes, some of them unreleased—a potential gold mine. And hundreds of bootleggers, making millions off Screw’s good name, to be fought.
It should be obvious by now that screwed music is no gimmick. It is so popular in Houston now—among blacks as well as Latinos and white kids—that every local label releases two versions of every rap CD: a regular and a screwed version. If the label doesn’t screw it, someone else will. C-Note had an apt analogy for Screw’s influence: “You can’t tell everybody to stop using computers,” he said. “It’s not gonna happen. Well, screwed music is like computers.”
One of the things that stuck in my head from Watford and Santschi’s documentary was Screw’s simple advice that seemed to sum up his career: “Always be yourself. Don’t try to be like the next man, know what I’m saying? Be you.” Sometimes people need help finding their own voices, especially on the south side of Houston. In February I went to a late-night recording session at a small studio on Telephone Road. It was Al-D’s night, but Shorty Mac, a rapper named Trey, and a young woman were all there to rap with him. As producer Watford recorded the beats, the four sat hunched over spiral notebooks silently writing their raps, slapping the air with the cadence of their thoughts, sounding the words that would soon be rushing from their mouths.
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